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DOE study in Greene County focuses on rise of fluid through shale layers

| Thursday, July 12, 2012, 8:16 a.m.

The U.S. Department of Energy plans to chime in on the question of whether fluids from deep, underground shale formations can rise over time.

With two studies recently suggesting fluid from the drilling targeting Marcellus shale can rise into groundwater, a scientist at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in South Park said on Wednesday his lab has been studying what, if anything, can move from the formations.

A team there will be monitoring a Greene County drill site for at least a year, said Richard W. Hammack, a physical scientist overseeing the project.

“It's a perfect scenario,” he said. “If there is communication between (underground) levels, we'll nail it.”

Hammack doesn't expect to find any, he said. Though recent studies suggest otherwise, it's been long-established science that a combination of impervious rock layers above the Marcellus, underground pressures and the shale's own absorptive properties keep fluids trapped inside, he said.

The issue has become important as drillers have tapped thousands of gas wells into the Marcellus since 2005. They pump billions of gallons of chemically treated water into the earth to tap gas, claiming the technique is safe because those chemicals, the gas and pollutants that could be released can't migrate up through thousands of feet of rock.

Studies released in spring have claimed that may not be true. Duke University researchers announced this week that they had found evidence that natural Marcellus brine “not from drillers“ had reached shallow aquifers in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Natural faults and fractures in the Marcellus, made worse by drillers, could allow chemical migration to the surface within 10 years, hydrologist Tom Myers said in a work published in April in the journal Ground Water.

Hammack's team has lined up an anonymous company that has shallow gas wells sitting above six Marcellus wells on the same property. The company agreed to put tracer chemicals in its drilling fluid and help search for other natural tracers, and then allow federal researchers to study the shallow wells to see if anything from the Marcellus has worked its way up, he said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working on a similar study, but it is limited to studying the effect of shale drilling on water. The Department of Energy can study broader implications on human and environmental safety, Hammack said.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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